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AUG. 14, 2015

Back to School…

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Julie Holt, Admissions Director

August always has that feeling of shift, newness, and the unknowns. Shifting seasons, shifting priorities, shifting attention … and the “Back to School” buzz is palpable to most in the US, even if you don’t have children or work in the educational realm. If you were raised in the US, I’m sure you have many memories of your own about how this season has felt for you. No matter how you feel or felt about school, I think that most of us can’t also help but feel a sense of wonder about what awaits this next school year. We, at The Outdoor Academy, are among few schools that get to feel that sense of anticipation, wonderment, and newness twice a year. We are looking forward to Semester 41’s arrival next Saturday, (8/22) when we get to both meet the individual students and see how they come together for the first time as a community.

As I write this, The Outdoor Academy faculty are gathering high up on a mountain bald off the Blue Ridge parkway, beginning the community building process and preparing for the 2015-2016 school year.  They have returned from summer break with great stories and grand adventures that have been filled with challenges, inspiration, new life lessons and so much more.   Our faculty have returned ready and eager to share their wisdom, forge new friendships, and fully engage in the learning process with the Semester 41 students.  Being part of the admissions process, alongside Cary Crawford, our Admissions Counselor, and picking up where Lindsay Martin, our former Admissions Director, left off, has been a most rich and rewarding task for me.

Over the course of the summer, I have come to know so many of the students and families coming this Fall.  I am finding that what I saw when I was here ten years earlier is that the aspect I loved most about this work then still holds true today – the OA students and parents are among some of the most determined and committed people I have ever met.  Most moving is the intention, the trust in the world, and the desire OA parents have to create life-changing opportunities for their children in spite of the sacrifices they have to make to do so, AND the students who are ready to step outside of their comfort zones, expand their horizons, greet the challenges and joys that life brings, and aspire to become better people.

Our School Director, Roger Herbert, says that the part in our mission statement – “the betterment of human character” – is part of our ethos.  It is that ethos, that all involved in Semester 41, our incoming students, our faculty, our Director, and all OA and Eagle’s Nest staff , embrace.  Taking a step away from the harried life, from the noise of everyday culture, from cell phones, twitter, sports – typical teenage activities – is not an easy choice.

Semester 41 and all future and past OA students (and parents), YOU are brave warriors,  and your experience here and the lessons you learn, and hence the wisdom you leave with, will not only serve you well but our world will be all the better for it.

Stay tuned for the stories and adventures of Semester 41!

MAR. 23, 2015

The Big Crafty Field Trip

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Jess Kaufman, Craft, Music & Dance Teacher

Success! This is Jess writing to you to tell you that last weekend the entire student body (minus one who had a wedding to attend in Las Vegas), the residents, and I loaded up our busses and backpacks and headed down to the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC. The Folk School is an amazing place, with a rich history of handwork, sustainable living, neighborhood community building, and lots of traditional song and dance. In preparation for the trip, we watched the Emmy-nominated documentary Sing Behind the Plow, detailing the history of how the Folk School was founded.

On Friday we drove to Lane’s End, to go set up camp. There is a gorgeous piece of property in Brasstown called Lane’s End Homestead that has been used for community-building purposes since it was established. For the past year it has been the home base for the Pioneer Project, who were kind enough to let us camp behind their gardens, next to a singing stream, and use their composting toilet and work the land, preparing it for their spring gardening season. We ate our sandwiches and drove over to the Folk School campus, where we split into four groups and toured the studios and the grounds, including the craft shop where students could look at all the sellable wares of the teachers who have passed through over the years. We ended up at the Keith House, where we got to see the finished projects from the Folk School students that week, and OA students got to see what was made in just a week.

We then went over to the campground to warm up the chili and cornbread that our OA chef, Mark, made for us. We brought Rodrigo’s special “hot rod” sauce, not knowing it was the new, extra-spicy batch! We got really warm, really fast after putting that in our chili. Then it was time to head back to the Keith House to watch a concert by the Barralon Brothers, who are fantastic musicians from France. They played a variety of traditional French songs, some with accordion and mandolin, and some A Capella. The brothers’ voices blended perfectly and OA students were attentive, enthusiastic listeners.

After the evening concert, we headed back to Lane’s End, and got to go into the main house and talked with Adam Haigler, co-founder of the Pioneer Project, and son of the authors of the best-selling book on gap year experiences (see The Gap Year Advantage by Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson). Our students asked great questions, dreamed aloud of what they would do with their ideal year off from school, and it was a pleasant but sleepy evening of talking about alternatives to mainstream education. We were all asleep in our tents, cozy and warm despite the rain, by 11pm.

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The next morning we were up bright and early to pack up camp and make oatmeal and grits. We then split up into two groups. One bus load visited the local yarn shop, owned by the Folk School’s resident spinner/knitter/dyer, Martha Owen and Charlotte Crittenden. They are two of my fiber mentors, and although we couldn’t meet Martha there, our students enjoyed fingering the hand-spun, naturally dyed yarns, leafing through pattern ideas, playing with puppets, and watching Charlotte demo a spinning wheel. Then that group went to the Keith House to have a lesson in dips—the dancing kind, not the chips kind! Local Brasstown residents Stefan Kelischek and Forrest Oliphant taught students how to spin and dip each other, so that they could look extra pro at the contra dance that night. The other busload got to learn some traditional morris dance styles (clog morris and border morris, both incredibly fun and high-energy). The students were enthusiastic and quick learners—the Brasstown dancers were impressed by the willingness and politeness that our students displayed.

While the groups weren’t dancing, they took turns making expressive face jugs at local potter Rob Withrow’s studio, Smoke in the Mountains. Probably everyone’s favorite moment of the day was when Rob said we could dig through his pile of “throw away” mugs (literally a pile on a tarp in his front yard)—some of the mugs barely had anything wrong with them, but Rob’s dedication to only selling the best of each kiln firing meant we had plenty of seconds to choose from. Oh boy, free pottery! Students were overjoyed, especially as they had just worked for 90 minutes to craft their own mugs. They knew the value of the free mugs because they had experienced firsthand the effort, care, and skill that goes into each one.

OA students with Rob Withrow.

OA students with Rob Withrow.

After everyone had had a dance lesson and made a mug, we drove back to OA to have dinner, shower, and get ready for the contra dance that night! We went to the River Falls Lodge, which we are lucky to live very close to, just across the State line in Marietta, SC. We got to dance to the incredible sounds of the Stringrays from New England, with Will Mentor calling—one of our nation’s best callers. The band, caller, and local dancers were incredibly receptive to our group of new dancers, and my music and dance class got to put all their practice into play (we’ve been studying contra and square dance for about 3 weeks now). We had a great time; and several students danced every single dance of the night! We headed back to OA exhausted and happy. I hope that this trip inspires Semester 40 and their friends and family to go take advantage of the Folk School, go to their local contra dances, and make things by hand for the rest of their lives.

I really owe a big thanks to everyone at OA who supported me in dreaming up this very packed weekend, and everyone in Brasstown and at the Folk School for providing us with inspiration, knowledge, effort, and creativity. I was blown away by what is possible when we come at life with a spirit of collaboration.

Jess Kaufman, Craft, Music & Dance Teacher

MAR. 13, 2015

Patterns Everywhere!

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Jen Hilterman, Math Teacher

During the first day of math class I asked my students to define math. They quickly realized this was no easy feat. After 45 minutes of discussion, we had a number of ideas out there: a study of numbers, problem solving, a method to understand the world around us, and the study of patterns. This was also their first introduction to the idea that here the teachers do not just give them the answers. We have been speculating about the definition all this time.

Fast forward a month and a half to patterns cornerstone day 2015. After burning through several back up plans due to new policies and impossible weather, we finally ended up having a school day out in Pisgah Forest! Everyone was stoked after wrestling with cabin fever for weeks despite our affectionately termed “snab” day where we built snow creatures and went “penguin sledding” using trash bags. The announcement of patterns day was made via a flash mob at lunch on Thursday. I informed the students to be prepared to be out for the whole day… in the snow. I sat next to Ellis during breakfast on Friday, and he asked me what to expect for this cornerstone day. I simply replied, “The only advice I would give you is to free all your senses and be on the lookout for patterns everywhere!”

We started the day with a few dance patterns out on cabin 7 field led by our fearless craft and music teacher, Jess. After one of the dances, we circled up to see the pattern we had made in the snow. One of my students exclaimed, “It’s an ellipse!” Several students chimed in with more details since we had just learned about how to graph these in math class. Jess pointed out that this is exactly what cornerstone days (and all classes) at OA are meant to do. Students make all sorts of cross-curricular connections. Today math and music and craft and philosophy would all be connected.

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After creating masterful hexagonal patterns, we loaded the buses and headed out into the forest for the rest of the day. I led an activity looking at different length pendulums and sinusoidal graphs, Laura took the students on a tour of fractals found in snow, trees, and shrubs, and Franklin led the students in a philosophical excursion of the mind. When we had enough time to go explore and look for patterns on our own, we came back together for our final lesson about the Fibonacci sequence. We explored how our bodies display the Fibonacci sequence just as many other things do in nature, art, music, and architecture. Incredible! With the final hike back to the buses we found many things that are modeled by the Fibonacci sequence for the purpose of functionality and supreme beauty. Richard P. Feynman, an American physicist, says, “Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.” We certainly saw this under the blue skies and warm sun out in Pisgah Forest. We ended the day by talking about what would define a pattern. Interestingly, the discussion that began on the first day of classes came full circle when one students suggested that a pattern can be defined by math. What do you think?

NOV. 19, 2014

Big Crafty Field Trip to Brasstown, Part II

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On Saturday morning, following a big pot of oatmeal, we hurried over to the Folk School for a Q&A session with resident folklorist and musician David Brose. David was wearing a knitted necktie made of handspun angora and yak fibers, prompting our student Jack to ask if I thought he might be able to someday knit a tie. Hooray for finding inspiration everywhere! David told us more about some of the things we learned when we watched the Emmy-nominated documentary about the Folk School called Sing Behind the Plow. After our talk we split into four groups and toured the studios and the grounds of the Folk School, ending up in the craft shop where students could look at all the saleable wares of the teachers who have passed through over the years. Most just looked but a few bought special items to bring home. I loved watching them examine each piece for construction techniques, asking about materials and methods. What brilliant young craftspeople we are nurturing here!

We ate our lunches in the sunshine and then did two hours of digging, weeding, raking, and mulching at Lane’s End. Then we split up into three groups, allowing each person to decide what they wanted to spend the rest of their afternoon learning about: basketry with Folk School resident artist Pattie Bagley; dovetail joinery with John Campbell; or a blacksmithing demo with Folk School resident gardener Tim Ryan. It is my sincere hope that our students have formed the basis for potential lasting relationships with these artisans; they are all master craftspeople and local treasures. I went with the woodworking group, and got to watch John use handmade tools to create exact measurements and carve out the joints with traditional chisels, saws, and repurposed steel. It was also nice to warm ourselves by the woodstove in his shop, which doesn’t yet have a door—it’s a labor of love to build your own studio from the ground up! He gave us a tour of all the furniture that he has made and has in his home. We learned about the qualities of black walnut versus black locust, and we all left sincerely wanting to build our own furniture. The other groups had a great time as well—Leo showed me a tiny woven creature that Pattie showed him how to make. Wow!

We made a quick dinner of pasta and pesto sauce made from our garden kale and garlic butter from our own garlic stash at OA. We had “sun”dried tomatoes from our September harvest, and then we went to the square dance! Most of our students danced most of the time—some only danced a bit but enjoyed watching, and one hardy student (Eleanor!) danced every single dance and never sat down! She also set her mind to dance with only non-beginners, which is one of the most effective techniques for getting really good at partner dancing in a short amount of time. We had a bonus flat-footing demo from visiting pro Dave Harvey, founder of the NYC Barn Dance. With Beth Molaro calling, and two ENC friends also showing up at the square dance, it felt like the perfect night for blending OA + Brasstown (4-ever!).

On Sunday morning we attempted a sleep-in but the cows had different ideas. We packed up our tents and organized our gear, did a sweep of the property to make sure we weren’t leaving things behind, and then got to go into the main house and talk with Adam Haigler, co-founder of the Pioneer Project, and son of the authors of the best-selling book on gap year experiences, The Gap Year Advantage. Our students asked great questions and were polite and attentive listeners. Then we were treated to a homemade brunch at Tim Ryan’s home, feasting on homemade biscuits and gravy, sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, fruit salad and yogurt, cheesy potatoes, kale and onions, and cheesecake.

I really owe big thanks to everyone at OA who supported me in dreaming up this very packed weekend, and everyone in Brasstown and at the Folk School for providing us with inspiration, knowledge, effort, and creativity. I was blown away by what is possible when we come at life with a spirit of collaboration. Here’s hoping that Semester 39 is the first of many to go on our “big crafty field trip” to Brasstown!

Jess Kaufman, craft and music/dance teacher

NOV. 18, 2014

Big Crafty Field Trip to Brasstown, Part I

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We just got back from our fabulous Folk School field trip and I could not be more proud of our amazing OA students! In Brasstown this weekend the students sang along to sea shanties and ballads and listened to old time fiddle tunes around a campfire at night; they Morris danced and square danced; they made Appalachian “face mugs” at a local potter’s studio, and they visited the homes of local master craftspeople (a basket maker, a blacksmith, and a timber framer/traditional woodworker). They did service work for the Pioneer Project, a back-to-the-land gap year project focused on earth skills and traditional craft; two of our guys even elected to sleep outside under the stars on a rather frigid night—and we were all awoken by the lowing of cows in the morning from the field next to our campsite! We made our own meals over our little camp stoves and we played with the sweet dogs who lived on the property. And that doesn’t even cover our “official” visit to the Folk School itself.

On Friday we woke up and made our lunches while others readied the gear for our trip. Driving the gorgeous Appalachian Scenic Byway and all its twists and turns, our Floridian students were smitten with the frozen trees and icicles that decorated the cliffs and mountaintops. Upon arriving in Brasstown, one bus load visited the local yarn shop, owned by the Folk School’s resident spinner/knitter/dyer, Martha Owen. Our students enjoyed fingering the handspun, naturally dyed yarns and leafing through pattern ideas. I am proud to say that every one of them found something inspiring that they want to knit soon—parents, be warned! I’m doing my best to make fiber-junkies out of all of them.

We met back up to distribute sandwiches and go right into our afternoon activities: learning traditional Morris dance styles (women’s clog Morris for half our group, and border stick Morris for the others). The students were enthusiastic and quick learners—the Brasstown dancers were impressed by the willingness and politeness that our kids displayed. There are a few videos on the OA Flickr page of the stick morris lesson! While the groups weren’t dancing, they took turns making expressive face jugs at local potter Rob Withrow’s studio, Smoke in the Mountains. Probably everyone’s favorite moment of the day was when Rob said we could dig through his pile of “throw away” mugs (literally a pile on a tarp in his front yard)—some of the mugs barely had anything wrong with them, but Rob’s dedication to only selling the best of each kiln firing meant we had plenty of seconds to choose from. Oh boy, free pottery! They kids were overjoyed, especially as they had just worked for 90 minutes to craft their own mugs. They knew the value of the free mugs because they had experienced firsthand the effort, care, and skill that goes into each one.

After the pottery and the dancing, we were ready to go set up camp.  There is a gorgeous piece of property in Brasstown called Lane’s End Homestead that has been used for community-building purposes since it was established.  For the past year it has been the homebase for the Pioneer Project, who were kind enough to let us camp behind their gardens, next to a singing stream, and use their composting toilets and make a fire to warm ourselves by. Michael Ismerio, my friend and a widely known fiddle teacher, square dance caller, maker of leather shoes, and nature educator, came to visit us once it got dark and played and sang for us. Those students who were feeling like night owls got to stay up late, singing song after song, drifting away one by one to cozy up in their tents. It was a clear, brisk night with so many stars.

-Jess Kaufman, crafts and music/dance teacher

NOV. 10, 2014

Kids These Days…

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This is going to sound like an ad for The Outdoor Academy, but I just need to share the World History class I had this week. It exemplifies the very best of OA and American teens in general and it carries a valuable lesson for any teacher in their daily task of organizing and facilitating lessons.

We’ve been wandering about in History class this fall with the general theme and goal of gathering insights into the conflicts between the East and West. We’re being drawn into conversations about culture, imperialism, religion, capitalism, and revolutions. I am reading a new book by Karen Armstrong entitled Fields of Blood – Religion and the History of Violence. In the introduction she states that the food surpluses of the agricultural revolution brought systematic violence that led to absolutism and the modern military state (and yes, cultural awakenings and golden ages) as well as institutional oppression of the many by the few. My assigned reading was just four short pages describing Armstrong’s perspective of this civilization-building development in our distant history. I handed it out with the thought of giving the students a simple building-block concept.

They took ten minutes to read it after which I asked if they had any thoughts, with a short list in my mind of questions to prod them into discussion. But that was the last thing I said for the next forty minutes. They took this apart as though they were hungry. They opened with a comparison to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and then dissected and argued several positions, from the basic “does the author have a point?” to the causal roots of religion and conflict across history, to analogies with the predator/prey evolutionary arms race, and on to Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. I finally had to call time and send them off to their next class.

Fast forward one day; same time, same class. I realize I am late to class as I send off a visiting family. I arrive with an apology ready only to find a student at the board diagramming a flow chart of the previous day’s discussion at the direction of an eager class.

“No, no, surplus doesn’t always have to lead to a militarized society.”

“Of course it does, even well-intentioned democracies have to protect themselves from aggressors.”

“But if we export democracy to all nations there would be no need…”

“Are you crazy?  You can’t pull that off, and even if you could, Hobbes tells us that will never happen – people are greedy and it only takes one nation to destabilize the whole place!”

“That’s why there is a United Nations!”

“But then we need a UN army!”

“Aarrgh! We’re back where we started!!!”

Sometimes you can’t get out of their way fast enough.

Ted Wesemann, OA Director, Natural Science and World History Teacher